Stage Door: <i>Brief Encounter, The Pitmen Painters</i>

Now at Studio 54,is an inspired multimedia production that brilliantly utilizes cinematic imagery to underscore larger truths.
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Not one, but two extraordinary imports have arrived on Broadway, courtesy of the West End. Both have British authors and casts; both mine intimate stories of passion. Now at Studio 54, Brief Encounter is a pastiche of Noel Coward's famed screenplay and the one-act on which it was based. The film is a longtime favorite; on stage, the star-crossed lovers are magical -- and Coward songs amplify their affair. This is an inspired multimedia production that brilliantly utilizes cinematic imagery to underscore larger truths.

It's 1938; Alec, a doctor (Tristan Sturrock), and Laura (Hannah Yelland) meet at a train station when he removes a cinder from her eye. Cue the symbolism. They now see the world in a new way, filled with a once-in-a-lifetime love. They bond on a visceral level, having found their soul mate -- and a remarkable sense of emotional freedom. Marriage and circumstance conspire against them; they cannot give full rein to their passion. Yet in tender restraint, they find a pure connection that will break your heart. Their romance, in adapter/director Emma Rice's sensitive hands, is utterly enchanting.

Brief Encounter reveals several kinds of passion. Hannah and Alec meet at a train station café, run by the irresistible Myrtle (a hip-swinging Annette McLaughlin), whose assistant (Dorothy Atkinson) is smitten with Stanley (Gabriel Ebert). Their puppy love is contrasted with Albert (Joseph Alessi) and Myrtle, who enjoy a more primal union. The pairs double as comic relief, while illustrating love's diverse landscape. Ironically, the deepest passion, Alec and Laura's, is doomed. Longing has never been rendered so poetically.

A charming and inventive production, Brief Encounter owes a debt to 39 Steps and Sweeney Todd director John Doyle in its architecture and efficiency. Its cast, however, is heaven-sent. Yelland and Sturrock have superb chemistry. Atkinson and Alessi are spot-on, while McLaughlin is pitch-perfect. Rice has imbued her version of Brief Encounter, exploring love's ecstasy and despair, with enormous artistry and empathy.

The Pitmen Painters, a true story at the Samuel J. Friedman, addresses a different kind of passion: Depression-era miners in the north of England are empowered by painting. Art as transformation is a favorite theme of Tony winner Lee Hall, who also wrote Billy Elliot. Here, he salutes the Ashington Group, Northumberland coal miners who painted in the 1930s and 1940s. What begins as a worker's educational class ends in triumph: exhibitions in Newcastle and London. (Decades later, their work tours Europe and Asia.)

The play opens in 1934. Robert Lyon (Ian Kelly) has been hired to teach art appreciation. But since the miners haven't actually seen paintings, Kelly nixes his black-and-white Renaissance slides and hits on a better idea: weekly painting assignments. Every Tuesday night till 1947, when the play ends, the class critiques the work. And the work, scenes of colliery life, is fantastic. Flashed on big screens, there are often audible gasps in the audience.

The Ashington Group was a rarity in England: Working-class artists producing working-class subjects. The men are enduring nine-hour shifts for two pounds, six shillings a week. Their art isn't romantic; it depicts their surroundings. But the sensation is overwhelming. Oliver Kilbourn (Christopher Connel) sums up his first creative experience: "I was shaking... I felt like for those few hours there -- I was my own boss."

The men (David Whitaker, Deka Walmsley, Michael Hodgson) tend to be funny and opinionated, especially when they assess each other. What binds them is a fierce allegiance to class and pride in being pitmen. What they discover, especially Kilbourn, the most celebrated of the group, is that art isn't the province of the rich. But as their world opens, the play pivots into artistic queries: What does art mean? Who can make it?

For openers, they can. Helen Sutherland (Phillippa Wilson), the shipping line heiress, was supportive of the group and Kilbourn in particular. Their scenes together are achingly moving. So is a trip to London museums. The miners' reaction to Van Gogh is revelatory. "What was overwhelming was the intensity. ... Real art belongs to everyone."

Hall, director Max Roberts and a top-notch cast deliver a strong comment on art, class and possibility. Pitmen Painters has a quiet intensity at once humbling and life-affirming.

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